Authors: Emily Danby
The other women left Nazek to be with her guest undisturbed, colluding with her perhaps, as their glimmering eyes watched from a distance. The four women were all between the ages of forty and fifty, although they seemed younger. Hanan was taken aback by the way they drank, gulping down liquor as if it were water. She found it difficult to believe these were the same women who attended engagements with their husbands; they seemed completely different.
The wild glimmer in the women's eyes exaggerated their beauty. Later, Hanan would come to understand from the lessons Nazek gave as she lay in her arms.
âThere's something more beautiful, more sensitive about women, something that makes you shine. It's different with men â you get all sorts. Some you want to shut in your room for days and screw to exhaustion, but then outside the bedroom they don't mean a thing to you. Then there are the ones you dream about spending your whole life just talking and flirting with; here the pleasure is in staying just within the limits. There are the men who make you want to cry in their arms, and others you sit with and discuss the ways of the world, inside-out. But with women, love is different. When passion takes hold of you and you're completely absorbed in your lover's kiss, she is all of those men in one: a lover, a friend and an everlasting object of desire. Women are more sensitive to everything, believe me. Men are boorish, even if they appear otherwise. In your arms, a woman is like silk; she gives away her heart before giving her body. A man would never do that.'
Hanan had started to throw the past behind her, she realised. There was no hope of turning back now, no hope of going back to the start. The women turned into butterflies before her eyes: where did that joy in their movements come from? Light radiated around each of them like a halo as they gravitated towards each other, laughing sweetly, floating in a weightless space.
One of the women, Leena, was the wife of a military officer. Leena was strikingly beautiful, her complexion not white exactly, but more the fair, rosy tone characteristic of most women from the Syrian coast. Thanks to her rural origins, Leena was the least malicious of the women and took delight in teasing the Damascenes, that they were bastards. The Damascene women found little objection to her use of the word, as Leena told them the story of Tamerlane's sacking of Damascus â how he had taken the women as prisoners and left them to his soldiers, who had raped them for days, spawning generations of illegitimate offspring. From that time onwards the children of Damascus became known as bastards. The women laughed at Leena's anecdote, one retorting that the servant girls of each of their grandmothers had been simpletons from the coast with lice-infested hair, who spread their legs at night for their masters. Leena laughed in return, not in the least offended.
The second woman of the group was the wife of a factory owner whose company produced cleaning products. She wore an elegant headscarf in a fashionable style, but her dress sense was quite peculiar, the vibrant colours of her clothes giving her the look of a moving garden.
Maha, the third woman, was thin and silent and moved anxiously, preoccupied in smoking her cigarettes. Maha spoke with a strange accent, the result of having grown up in Aleppo and marrying in Damascus. At her soirÃ©es in Aleppo, where the other women in their intimate circle came together, her attentiveness matched Nazek's. In time, Hanan got to know those women too, at the evenings she was invited to by Nazek. Most of the girls had married young and each one of them had a female lover. Very few people knew exactly what was going on, since their gatherings were monopolised by women, and the men felt quite secure when their wives were in female company, even if there was something unsettling about their friendship. So long as the relationship remained a secret, there was no problem, but as soon as rumours started, the husband would sever the relationship between his wife and her companion.
Many of the women at these ladies' gatherings were of the rich Aleppan elite. Nazek went to great lengths to ensure that Hanan would not become overly acquainted with any of them, afraid that with their skills of seduction one might snatch Hanan to be her lover.
The fourth woman at the gathering was a mysterious figure, wearing only a svelte dress which began at the top of her bust and ended just above her knee. Nazek said little about the woman to Hanan, although she showed her great affection, calling her not by her own name but by an honorific moniker: Umm al-Nour, Mother of Light.
Hanan was afraid. As she sipped the vodka her insides burned from her throat right down to the tips of her toes. A few sips were enough for her to feel a fire inside. She was dazed and happy; for the first time she had discovered what joy felt like, listening to the women's obscene jokes.
âThey're happy,' she said to Nazek, sipping her vodka.
âMore than happy,' Nazek replied, attempting to read Hanan.
âI'm jealous.' Hanan put down her glass and lowered her head in defeat.
âYou're not happy yourself? I can't imagine a single woman who deserves happiness more than you do.'
âI don't know,' Hanan responded, wanting some time to consider Nazek's words. âWhat is happiness?' she went on. âContentment? Satisfaction?'
âIn simple terms, happiness is doing what we want to do. But actually it's a lot more complicated than that; you know yourself that nobody gets the happiness they wish for.'
âThe happiness that
wishes for? Me? You? Them?' Hanan asked, as Nazek enveloped her in her gaze. She examined every detail of Hanan, like a bird of prey about to swoop in for the kill. Yet as Nazek's eyes devoured her, Hanan remained perfectly at ease, unfazed.
âDo you trust that this is your happiness? It might only be temporary, but it's still happiness... laughing and joking and making our loved ones happy.' Nazek moved closer and trailed her warm fingers across Hanan's forehead. As Hanan pulled away, Nazek withdrew her fingers and carried on talking, leaning into Hanan's face.
âHanan my dove. As delicate as can be.'
Hanan was bringing back to mind those moments of her surrender to Nazek, happy at having found something to occupy her thoughts other than the maid she had sent away. Yet this contentment barely lasted a second moment before turning to deep sorrow. Hanan had remembered how little she had meant to Nazek. Of course, she wasn't as insignificant as a servant, but at best Nazek had strung her along. It was Nazek who had preyed on her, Nazek who had acquainted her with her hesitancy, and later her delight; with Aliyah, however, she was the mistress morning, noon and night. Wasn't it she, Hanan, who directed the girl's fingers to the zones of pleasure? She'd been the one to give the first orders, hadn't she? Even if Aliyah had started to act the mistress later on, she only did so because she knew what her mistress wanted.
Hanan recollected just how fragile she had felt, lost amongst those women, her look of confusion the same as the look she found later in Aliyah's eyes as she undressed before the girl. From within her ribs, despair erupted like hot steam from a fountain.
Hanan could picture the outfit she had worn that evening with complete clarity: an elegant Chanel dress concealed beneath her brown
and matched with a pair of heels. She had sat alone on a sofa set apart from the others, her right leg crossed over the left. Shaking away her lethargy, she got up and started to cross the room, moving coyly to the sound of the music. Hanan had caught the women's attention â so perfect in her coffee-coloured shoes and dress, which matched the colour of her hijab and
, bracelets, necklace, earrings and her handbag. The contrast of her milky-white skin against the earthen brown tone gave her the look of a miniature porcelain doll or the perfect children pictured in fashion magazines. Hanan laughed aloud and swallowed the last sip of her drink as Nazek approached, waving her glass.
âWhiskey tastes much nicer.'
Hanan meandered seductively, trembling as the lady kissed her forehead. She laughed. âI prefer vodka.'
The lady laughed too and put her arms around Hanan. For a few moments, Hanan was paralysed. Then to her own surprise and that of her hostess alike, she drew her face close and whispered in her ear, âI want another glass.'
Nazek took hold of Hanan's glass and squeezed her hand, sending a shiver running through Hanan's body from the centre of her head down to the base of her spine. Hanan closed her eyes and when she opened them again, the lady was staggering happily towards her. She sat down beside Hanan on the edge of the sofa. There was a levity in the way the women's shadows moved, and the way their arms curved and bent towards one another, which hadn't been so apparent before. Hanan could make out from the movements each body's longing to roll into a ball and scarper, to avoid collision. The bodies drew close, then moved apart, wanting to touch and be touched. They backed away, they played little tricks; each woman wanted to make her own torso the centre of movement, twisting and turning, bending parallel to the floor where their feet stamped.
Hanan was captivated by the way the women moved; with their eyes closed they were gone from the world, yet every limb of their bodies danced in perfect harmony. She wondered if her body would obey her if she danced, but didn't dare to try. The women's animation sent the blood dancing through her veins. She tried copying them, raising her arm until it fell and she was convinced that, were she to stop in response to the blood careering beneath her skin, she would certainly lose her balance. From the corner opposite to where she was sitting Nazek beckoned. Hanan struggled to stand up, as though something heavy were pinning her down. She saw nothing but the woman's piercing eyes; everything else was a blur. Slowly pacing across the room, she forgot about the other women. Hanan's coyness had driven the hostess wild. Coming close to Hanan, she grabbed her hand by the tips of her fingers and led her towards the bedroom.
The room had three sides, like a triangular hollow, and a generous free-standing mattress occupied the space. The bed was deep red in colour and scattered with miniature cushions, which spilled over onto the floor. Music floated down from the ceiling into the warm air. On a glass bedside table in the shape of a heart were several glasses and two gold-rimmed cups; one had a long neck, the other one shorter. To the side of the glasses was an assortment of women's menthol cigarettes.
Nazek shut the door. Hanan's heart was pounding so hard that she felt her body were about to explode. There was that scent again; it filled the air as Nazek approached. She stood silently as Nazek removed her dress. Mistress Nazek then stripped herself and the two women stood face-to-face.
Hanan looked out from the gap in the curtains once more, expecting to see Aliyah making her way back. She watched like a hunter awaiting his hawk's return and tried not to think of the night she had become Nazek's prey. But the powerful scent wafting in the air had brought with it the memory of Nazek's touch as she had undressed her.
Hanan pictured Aliyah naked. The girl was gone. She could no longer smell her scent in the air. The realisation made her panic. If only she'd been a little less harsh. She could have dragged her to her room, locked the door and given her a beating. She could have cried and pleaded with her to explain her betrayal. Or perhaps she should have hit Anwar instead, for meddling with her little girl?
She could see Nazek's expression as it had been in those moments when the lady undressed her, turning her into another woman. The face appeared in confrontation with Aliyah's, attacking and chastising it until Hanan gave a loud snort and batted her arms in the air to make the vision disappear.
âWhat have I done wrong?' she croaked softly. Hanan slapped her face with both hands. She stood with her body frozen perfectly still, whilst in her mind she returned to that night at Nazek's.
What had happened for the scent to torture her like that? That scent of Nazek's menthol cigarettes from all those years ago â the mint fragrance which had transformed into cinnamon. Back then, Hanan would escape with her little house-sparrow. She soaked up the fragrance as Nazek played with her body, covering her in kisses. The moment the lady's fingers slipped between her thighs, a shudder ran through Hanan's body. Her nostrils flared and she closed her eyes, her head resting in Nazek's hands. Nazek was startled as she watched Hanan's face crease in pain. How could a woman's orgasm be so agonising? she wondered. And how could Hanan reach climax from her kisses and caresses alone?
The scent of cinnamon took Hanan back to her maid's slender body. Hanan â in her prime â was the ship's captain, leading Aliyah's fingers wherever she pleased, before she vanished under a drape of hot, foamy water.
The streak of light faded into nothingness.
The light which had led Hanan to discover that the girl had slipped into Anwar's room, the light which had sent Aliyah scurrying like a lizard under her feet â that same light waned until it had vanished completely beneath the blinding rays of the rising sun.